The Presence of Fire
When you come into the presence of a leader of men, you know you have come into the presence of fire; that it is best not incautiously to touch that man; that there is something that makes it dangerous to cross him.
The room on the first floor of the Barbour County Courthouse in the little town of Eufaula, Alabama, was normally the County Clerk's Office, but after it had closed for the day on August 2, 1957, it was being used by the county's Board of Registrars, the body that registered citizens so they could vote in elections---not that the Board was going to register any of the three persons who were applying that day, for the skin of these applicants was black.
It was not a large room, and it was furnished very plainly. Its walls, white and in need of a fresh coat of paint, were adorned only by black-and-white photographs of former county officials. Against the rear wall stood a row of battered old filing cabinets that contained records of deeds and mortgages and applications for driver's licenses, and in front of the cabinets were six small, utilitarian gray metal office desks, each with a small, worn chair. Then there was a waist-high wooden counter at which people doing business with the County Clerk's Office usually stood. Today, the three registrars were standing behind the counter, and the applicants were standing in the bare space in front of it. No one offered them a chair, and the registrars didn't bother to pull up chairs for themselves, because the hearing wasn't going to take very long.
Trying to register to vote took courage for black people in Alabama in 1957, even when physical intimidation or violence wasn't employed to discourage them---as it often was. Everyone knew about black men who had registered and who shortly thereafter had been told by their employers that they no longer had a job, or about black farmers who, the following spring, went to the bank as usual for their annual "crop loan"---the advance they needed to buy the seed for the crop they were planning to plant that year---only to be informed that this year there would be no loan, and who had therefore lost their farms, and had had to load their wives and children into their rundown cars and drive away, sometimes with no place to go. Indeed, David Frost, the husband of Margaret Frost, one of the three applicants that August day, would never forget how, after he himself had registered some years before, a white man had told him that "the white folks are the nigger's friend as long as the nigger stays in his place," but that "I had got out of my place if I was going to vote along with the white man," and how, for months thereafter, instead of calling him "David" or "Boy" as they usually did, white people called him by the word he "just hated, hated": "Nigger"---pronounced in Alabama dialect, "Nigra"---and how, when they learned he was planning to actually vote, a car filled with men had stopped in front of his house one night and shot out the porch lights, and how, cowering inside, he had thought of calling the police, until, as the car drove away, he saw it was a police car.
And of course there was the humiliation of the registration hearings themselves. Many county Boards of Registrars required black applicants to pass an oral test before they would be given the certificate of registration that would make them eligible to vote, and the questions were often on the hard side---name all of Alabama's sixty-seven county judges; what was the date Oklahoma was admitted to the Union?---and sometimes very hard indeed: How many bubbles in a bar of soap?
The Barbour County registrars used a less sophisticated technique. They asked more reasonable questions---the names of local, state, and national officials---but if an applicant missed even one question, he would not be given the application that had to be filled out before he could receive a certificate, and somehow, even if a black applicant felt sure he had answered every question correctly, often the registrars would say there was one he had missed, although they would refuse to tell him which it was. Margaret Frost had already experienced this technique, for she had tried to register before---in January of 1957---and forty years later, when she was an elderly woman, she could still remember how, after she had answered several questions, the Board's chairman, William (Beel) Stokes, had told her she had missed one, adding, "You all go home and study a little more," and she could still remember how carefully blank the faces of Stokes and his two colleagues had been, the amusement showing only in their eyes.
Excerpted from Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro Copyright 2002 by Robert A. Caro. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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